The Great Recession gutted many construction businesses, as financing dried up and building came to a halt.
Direct Steel found potential private sector clients were pulling out.
“We had contracts lined up that never got off the ground,” says owner Rosemary Swierk. “So how do you exist with no business?”
Her answer: Build a new line of work for the Crystal Lake-based general contractor and construction management company.
“In 2009, I revamped the business plan and started chasing government business,” says Swierk, whose 9-year-old company employs a total of five.
Direct Steel, which has since done work for the Air Force, Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Veterans Affairs, has watched its government business go from zero in 2008 to 35 percent today.
Swierk says she got help from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Women’s Business Development Center and a federal Procurement Technical Assistance Center. The latter is a federal program that helps businesses compete for government contracts.
“I was given a list of all the Department of Defense prime contractors in the U.S.,” she says. “I contacted all of them. There was an awful lot of work that went into it. It doesn’t come like popcorn. You have to work it. You have to develop it.”
Direct Steel also benefited from the AthenaPowerLink program, which helps women-owned businesses profitably expand through the use of professional advisory panels. The advisers helped her reposition her company and access and interpret industry data on the market, she says.
Last year, the value of the contracts Direct Steel received rose tenfold from 2012, Swierk says, as the company also benefited from improvements in the private sector construction market.
Where her company shines is “working at the onset of the project with the architect, the engineer and the owner to best identify what their needs are and to help value engineers take out unnecessary costs and yet provide a facility that’s going to last them for years to come,” she says.
Swierk got started in the industry buying dilapidated commercial buildings and fixing them up for lease or sale. She credits sweat equity and surrounding herself with people who were looking out for her best interests with helping her learn the ropes.
As a player in a male-dominated industry, she doesn’t dwell on barriers.
“Unfortunately in life there’s always going to be people that are not fair and equitable, so the goal is to surround yourself and identify clients who are going to be fair and equitable, who understand and appreciate the value that you can bring to a project,” she says. “Have I always been treated right? No. But I’ve got a choice. I can whine and cry about it, or I can find other avenues to obtain success.”
For those looking to bust through barriers in the private sector construction business and land government contracts, Rosemary Swierk advises:
Strategically pursue opportunities. “Identify projects that provide the greatest opportunity for you to secure,” she says. “Make sure you’ve got knowledge and experience in the scope that is needed.”
Develop a strong, qualified conscientious team with similar vision, including experienced project managers and project directors.
Try to do it alone. “Government contracts aren’t easy,” she says. “Typically the specifications we see are 1,500 pages long. That’s a lot of room for error.” So take advantage of resources, starting with a Procurement Technical Assistance Center.
Photo of Rosemary Swierkby Heath Sharp